About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Friday, May 11, 2007

On free will, once again

Free will is one of those ever-popular topics in philosophy, where everyone seems to have opinions that are as strong as they tend to be unsubstantiated or confused. It's hard even to wrap one's mind around what exactly, or even approximately, one might possibly mean by “free” will. Free from what?

Well, if you haven't had enough of it yet, may I suggest a handy-dandy summary of the contributions that science is beginning to make to the free will debate? I published such an essay in the latest issue of Skeptical Inquirer, which is actually a commentary on a fascinating New York Times article by Dennis Overbye.

As you'll find out in the SI essay, I think Daniel Dennett is the philosopher who's got the most interesting things to say on the topic, especially in his Elbow Room. But science has begun to butt in, starting with the classic experiments by Libet in the 1970s, demonstrating that our subconscious makes decisions significantly ahead of our conscious awareness of them, a pretty scary thought in and of itself (I mean, who, exactly, is in charge here?).

You will also find out why I think that any talk of quantum mechanics in relation to the source of free will is nonsense on stilts, and should be avoided at all costs. On the other hand, I suggest in the essay that there is a legitimate role for so-called emergent properties to play a role in consciousness and, therefore (?) in free will, once we agree on a non-mystical conceptualization of emergence.


  1. Massimo -

    I agree with your thoughts on Dennett. And I think your article in SI gets it exactly right with regard to both the definition of free will and the attempt to salvage libertarian free will by recourse to quantum spookery, if I may coin a term.

    As someone with a naturalistic world-view, my goal is to persuade others that, not only is the traditional conception of free will an illusion, but that this is nothing to fear, once one gets over one's cognitive prejudices, as it were. I know all too well that that is easier said than done.

    I recently posted on the topic of free will due to an article by the co-founder of Reason magazine, that influential Libertarian publication. Tom Clark of The Center for Naturalism also wrote about it.

    When the NYT is publishing articles questioning a key shibboleth of the manifest image - as Owen Flanagan calls it - of human nature, I think that's a good thing.


  2. Given the state of the world, it's pretty clear to me that no one is in charge... :-)


  3. Juno walker, you don't need to coin a new term, Quantum Quackery describes the phenomenon.

  4. Sade has a clever comment on free will:

    le système de la liberté de l'homme ne fut jamais inventé que pour fabriquer celui de la grâce qui devenait si favorable à vos rêveries

    (the concept of free will was invented solely to make up the concept of divine grace, which is so convenient to your dreaming)

    I think this simple observation, which is both logical and historical, should not be omitted when speaking of the religiuos doctrine of free will.


  5. Free will is not a concept existing in void, it is necessary to reconcile a contradiction in religious thinking: god is benevolent, but there is evil in the world and people are going to hell. The religious workaround is: god is so benevolent that gave man the liberty to reject him, man makes bad use of this liberty (curious kind of liberty that you can use only strictly following the prescriptions of the master) and that's the origin of evil.

    If you do not subscribe to the idea of a benevolent god the garbled notion of free will does not even come to mind, and in fact there is nothing of this ill-defined idea in pre-christian philosophy.

    The moral problem is treated in a completely different and sounder way by classical philosophers: once we understand by rational means what is good for us and our fellow people we have just to practice it in order to live a good life.


  6. "Nonsense on stilts" - that's Bentham on natural rights! I called it! lol.


    Speaking of quantum quackery; what in the hell happened to Roger Penrose?

  7. I agree with Andrea. Hard to find enough free will to justify sending someone to hell, but it is easier to find enough freedom to live a virtuous life. Free will worth having as Dennet would say.

  8. i dont have free will. you guys might all be individuals but im not.

  9. "Sade has a clever comment on free will"

    The sultry Jazz vocalist?!

  10. Nice. I like reading about this issue & especially like what Wegner has said & learned on the subject. I agree that free will is an illusion, but a persistent and useful illusion. Wegner describes people with "alien limb" syndrome in which their limbs seem to act without any conscious awareness of the action - how frightening to have your right hand doing something (like undressing you) while your left hand is doing the opposite & what you want (like dressing you).

    This gets to the adaptive value of the free will illusion - it helps us learn & predict. If we are 'in the loop' of our impulse-decision-action process then we can veto actions that we predict to be disadvantageous because there is an awareness of them before they happen.

    Note that it only appears that our consciousness is doing the vetoing - it's really being vetoed by our subconscious because we've been trained by past experience etc. So, just like Libet discovered, we aren't able to do anything with our consciousness - it's just along for the ride.

    example: a thought pops into your head to eat some ice cream (from where did the thought originate?) another thought pops into your head to not eat the ice cream so you don't - was this your consciousness that decided not to eat the ice cream? Or was it your subconscious deciding not to eat the cream for you?

    I also find it interesting that computers, which no one would say have 'free will' and are simply machines, can't even predict exactly how long it will take to copy a file - to know that value precisely would be too difficult, even if there was no unforseen user requests that interfered with the CPU allocations.

    So, although we don't have free will, and theoretically every action we take could be predicted exactly if enough information was known (the position and state of every molecule, etc) it's impossible to ever have enough information, so no one can predict our behaviors, not even ourselves. This helps reinforce the feeling that we have free will.

    Mind bending stuff though...

  11. im with me on this one!

  12. Here is a commentary on a study just published about "free will" in fruit flies:


    Notice this comment in the article: "even a fly brain possesses a function which makes it easier to imagine a brain that creates the impression of free will."

  13. Free will is not a concept existing in void, it is necessary to reconcile a contradiction in religious thinking

    It might help somewhat with that one, if we're feeling generous. But it creates a bigger problem, methinks.

    To me it seems like free will is not just incompatible with an omniscient god, but impossible. How can you be free if in effect the whole history of the universe is already determined and god already knows all you are going to do even before your ancestors were born? The religious then come up with "explanations" about god being out of time, or time being like a movie, which is all BS, obviously. Even if you do accept these things, they don't change the fact that if god knows it all, it is determined to the end of times and no matter what you do nothing will change.

    But that would spoil their dictatorial world dominance schemes, wouldn't it?



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